Two-time Olympic medalist and Dancing with the Stars champion Laurie Hernandez discussed gymnastics and mental health at a Friday night talk. During the event, Hernandez shared that his journey on Team USA was characterized by injuries, setbacks and resilience.
The Cornell University Program Council, in conjunction with La Asociacion Latina, hosted the live lecture and Q&A.
When 15-year-old homeschooled Hernandez had to stop her gym training due to a strained VMO muscle, she found herself suffering from all signs of burnout and overwhelmed by the pressure of her sport. So, in March 2016, she resigned.
Although it only lasted three days, it only lasted three days – but Hernandez looked back on his quit as one of many instances in which mental health has been a central topic throughout his career of gymnast.
When Hernandez competed in her first elite nationals, she came in 22nd out of 23 girls. Faced with this failure, she remembered the unwavering support of her mother.
“My mother is a social worker and therapist, my sister is also a therapist. Even though I’m Puerto Rican — often in Hispanic homes, mental health isn’t something that’s usually talked about — my mom wanted me to constantly talk about my feelings,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez recalled that after the competition, her mother took her out for ice cream to celebrate, although she did not win.
“I look back on that memory and recognize that she instilled in me her concept of being grateful and just embracing where you are at without any expectation of what’s to come or what’s happened,” he said. Hernandez said.
Throughout the night, Hernandez stressed the importance of his support system, especially during tough times.
“The times I wanted to quit was when my parents and my siblings all got together and they gave love,” Hernandez said.
Yet Hernandez also described her feelings of intense exhaustion, which led her to almost quit gymnastics altogether.
“When it comes to burnout, you have to plan breaks for yourself. You have to take the time to sleep. You have to take the time to eat. You need to take the time to connect with your community. If you don’t take that time, exhaust yourself again in your body and your brain will decide when you take a break and it will be the most awkward time of your life,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez said after winning a silver medal at the Rio Olympics in 2016, she continued to rethink the way she trained to try to prevent burnout.
“In our society, we are taught to give 110% every day. I remember telling my therapist, “I put in 200 percent every day and I’m not getting better,” Hernandez said. “I remember her telling me that the point was not to die trying, but to see how long you can survive before the end.
After her speech, she opened the floor to the audience for a Q&A moderated by Cornell gymnast Calista Brady ’24.
Audience members asked about how Hernandez overcomes mental blocks, lessons she learned in her career, and how she navigates meeting new people as a freshman at New York University.
CUPB Selections Officer Mimi Canter explained why Hernandez stood out as an exciting speaker to bring to campus.
“Being an Olympian means being at the highest possible echelon of your sport,” Canter said. “Plus, the fact that she’s another student from New York State is really cool.”
Hernandez ended the discussion by connecting her mental health journey in gymnastics to that of her daily life now as a student.
“As a student, the feeling I have before I compete is the same I have before I go for a semester. Anxiety is anxiety. Take what I’ve said in the last 25 minutes and apply it to your own life – where can you take breaks?” Hernandez said. “It’s important to take care of others, but don’t forget about yourself. Hang in there. You got that.”
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